Three Words That Health Care Should Stop Using: Insurance, Market, and Quality (Part 2 of 2)

The previous part of this article ripped apart the use of the words “insurance” and “market” to characterize healthcare. Not let’s turn to another concept even more fundamental to our thinking about care.


The final element of this three-card Monte is the slippery notion of quality. Health care is often compared to the airlines (when we’re not being compared to the Cheesecake Factory), an exercise guaranteed to make health care look bad. Airlines and restaurants offer relatively homogeneous experiences to all their clients and can easily determine whether their service succeeded or failed. Even at a mechanical level, the airlines have been able to quantify safety.

Endless organizations such as the National Association for Healthcare Quality (NAHQ) and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) collect quality measures, and CMS has tried strenuously to include quality measures in Meaningful Use and the new MACRA program. We actually have not a dearth of quality measures, but a surfeit. Doctors feel overwhelmed with these measures. They are difficult to collect, and we don’t know how to combine them to create easy reports that patients can act on. There is a difference between completing a successful surgery, caring for things such as pain and infection prevention after surgery, and creating a follow-up plan that minimizes the chance of readmission. All those things (and many more) are elements of quality.

Worst of all, despite efforts to rank patients by their conditions and risk, hospitals repeatedly warn that quality measures underestimate risky patients and therefore penalize the hospitals that do the most difficult and important work–caring for the sickest. Many hospitals are throwing away donor organs instead of doing transplants, because the organs are slightly inferior and therefore might contribute to lower quality ratings–even if the patients are desperate to give them a try.

The concept of quality in health care thus needs a fresh look, and probably a different term. The first, simple thing we can do is remove patient ratings from assessments of quality. The patient knows whether the nurse smiled at her or whether she was discharged promptly, but can’t tell how good the actual treatment was after the event. One nurse has suggested that staff turnover is a better indication of hospital quality than patient satisfaction surveys. Given our fascination with airline quality, it’s worth noting that the airline industry separates safety ratings from passenger experience. The health care industry can similarly leverage patient ratings to denote clients’ satisfaction, but that’s separate from quality.

As for the safety and effectiveness of treatment, we could try a fairer rating system, such as one that explicitly balances risk and reward. Agencies would have to take the effort to understand all the elements of differences in patients that contribute to risk, and make sure they are tallied. Perhaps we could learn how to assess the success of each treatment in relation to the condition in which the patient entered the office. Even better, we could try to assess longitudinal results instead evaluating each office visit or hospital admission in isolation.

These are complex activities, but we have lots of data and powerful tools to analyze it. Together with a focus on changing behavior and environments, we should be able to make a real difference in quality–and I mean quality of life. Is there anything an ordinary member of the health professions can do till then? Well, try issuing Bronx cheers and catcalls at any meeting or conference presentation where someone uses one of the three misleading terms.

About the author

Andy Oram

Andy Oram

Andy Oram writes and edits documents about many aspects of computing, ranging in size from blog postings to full-length books. Topics cover a wide range of computer technologies: data science and machine learning, programming languages, Web performance, Internet of Things, databases, free and open source software, and more. My editorial output at O'Reilly Media included the first books ever published commercially in the United States on Linux, the 2001 title Peer-to-Peer (frequently cited in connection with those technologies), and the 2007 title Beautiful Code. He is a regular correspondent on health IT and health policy for He also contributes to other publications about policy issues related to the Internet and about trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business.